A battered old military truck and rusting Belarusian tractor are perched on the edge of degraded wetland in the heart of the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve. They have been hastily deployed in a desperate attempt to save an excavator from being swallowed by the squelching earth beside the obsolete Soviet dam it is trying to demolish.
In the 1970s, 11 earth dams were built on the Sarata and Kogilnik rivers as a crude alternative to footbridges to access the area’s aquifers.
Ornithologist Maxim Yakovlev remembers that prior to the construction of the dams, the local rivers slowly meandered through a rich wetland ecosystem which would store, hold back and slowly release water after heavy rains. “Back then, before the dams, when the ecosystem was functioning properly, we had healthier soil and vegetation,” says Yakovlev, as he skirts the edge of a reeking swamp near the tiny, ancient town of Tatarbunary on the northern fringe of the reserve, a 100-mile (160km) drive south-west of Odessa.